LaRose Nixes Additional Ballot Drop Boxes

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose called on Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections to again utilize drop-off boxes for absentee ballot applications and ballots, but rejected expanding beyond one per county ahead of this year’s general election. 

LaRose addressed the use of the drop-off boxes deployed during Ohio’s primary, which was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, at the midpoint of a news conference to address preparations for the Nov. 3 election. 

The state’s 88 county boards of elections are being directed to have the secure drop boxes in place beginning Sept. 1 and through Election Day on Nov. 3, LaRose said. 

The boxes are being deployed as an option for submitting ballot requests and completed ballots amid concerns about in-person voting as the coronavirus pandemic persists as a public health threat, as well as growing concerns about the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service. The boxes are secure and under around-the-clock surveillance.  

“There were questions about whether that was going to continue to be an option,” LaRose said to reporters during a virtual news conference Wednesday.

He also issued a 48-point guidance and recommendation document to Ohio’s elections boards. 

Also asked about potentially expanding the number of drop-off boxes permitted, the state’s chief elections officer said he asked state Attorney General Dave Yost to offer an opinion on whether state law permitted that. 

When no opinion appeared to be forthcoming, he said he decided not to wait for the legal analysis and to disallow the addition of new drop boxes, in part because of the risk of almost-certain litigation, as is happening in Pennsylvania, he said.    

“This is something I think is a fine idea to look at in the future,” he said. “I hope that I hope that the legislature weighs in on this and it can be done in an equitable way, but with just under three months to go until Election Day, I don’t think time to change the way that we’ve done things here in Ohio and add new drop boxes.”

The decision drew mixed reaction from local boards of elections officials and political leaders. 

Joyce Kale-Pesta, director of the Mahoning County Board of Election, said she would like to have secured boxes spread throughout the county. During the primary election in spring, the box at Mahoning County had to be emptied three times each day. She is planning on purchasing a larger drop box using funds awarded by the Secretary of State’s office. 

“If we could have additional locations, that would be great,” she said.  

Colleagues in neighboring Trumbull and Columbiana counties were satisfied having the single box. 

“Having one at the board of elections is much more secure. It’s monitored,” said Stephanie Penrose, director of the Trumbull County Board of Elections. “It would be hard to have people go out every day throughout the county to retrieve content from various drop boxes.” 

 “We are fortunate that our office is in a centralized part of the county so there is a reasonable amount of travel time for residents living in surrounding communities in the county to travel here,” said Bryce Miner, deputy director of the Columbiana County Board of Elections. “Our single drop box has worked well and is secure and accessible for voters.” 

In separate statements, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper and state Sen. Nickie Antonio, campaign chairwoman for the Ohio Senate Democrats, blasted the decision. 

“Ohioans have used secure drop boxes to return their absentee ballots for years — and it was never a problem until Frank LaRose decided to make it one,” Pepper said.

 He further characterized LaRose’s claims that he needed statutory authority as “baseless” and said they should be viewed as “an excuse to rein in boards of elections that are trying to make it more convenient for voters to cast their ballots safely and securely during a global pandemic.” 

Antonio, D-23 Lakewood, said she was “sickened” by LaRose’s actions and called them “an attack on voting rights in Ohio, plain and simple.” Nothing in the Ohio Revised Code restricts drop boxes to one per county, she maintained. 

“With nearly three months until Election Day, plenty of counties could add more secure drop boxes, and even install cameras to monitor them. All the boards of elections need is the authority they apparently had all along, until Frank LaRose unilaterally decided to take it away this morning,” she said. “Ohioans need safe, simple, and secure voting options every election, but especially during the ongoing COVID crisis.” 

LaRose stressed that the general election would take place as scheduled, including in-person voting Nov. 3 as an option, though he urged Ohioans to utilize mail-in voting or in-person voting at their county boards of elections during the four weeks prior to Election Day. 

“In many ways, Election Day and the month leading up to it is going to be just like Ohioans have become accustomed to for many years,” he said.  

He also called on Ohioans who plan to utilize mail-in voting to cast their ballots early. 

All Ohioans will receive an absentee ballot request form in the mail around Labor Day weekend, but Ohio law permits registered voters to submit their request as late as the Saturday before the election, making it unlikely they would receive the ballot in time to vote.

Procrastination is always a bad idea, but it’s an even worse one when an election is taking place during a pandemic, and when the postal service isn’t running at “peak efficiency,” he warned. 

Mail-in ballots this year could represent half of all ballots cast, roughly double previous years, he predicted. Elections boards in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties also anticipate similar higher-than normal mail-in voting.

“Our office has received a large amount of absentee ballot requests already and we have received them much earlier than in years’ past,” Columbiana County’s Miner said. 

At least half of Mahoning County’s voters will cast ballots by mail, Kale-Pesta predicted. Her office has already received 6,000 applications. Trumbull County’s Penrose anticipated similar numbers. She regularly votes by mail, which is “very secure and safe,” she said. “I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t trust the process. It gets a bad reputation for some reason, but I trust it completely.”

LaRose said he urged election boards to reach out to past poll workers to determine who plans to work on Election Day and who does not because of the pandemic or other reasons. 

Mahoning County normally needs about 600 poll workers and Kale-Pesta would like another 300 in reserve in case some change their minds. Trumbull County has about 80% of the more than 600 workers it needs to staff its 158 precincts, said deputy director Ron Massulo.

“Our staff does a tremendous job of making sure we have an adequate number of workers each election,” Miner said. “We have ongoing poll worker recruitment and we will be further marketing the precinct election official in the coming weeks leading up to the election.” 

To address potential shortages, the Secretary of State’s office has established programs to recruit poll workers through initiatives that encourage participation from 17-year-olds, nonprofits, veterans and businesses that are able to give their employees the day off so they can instead work at polling places.

In addition, he is working with the administration of Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to ensure Ohioans on unemployment don’t get penalized for serving as poll workers. 

“We need Ohioans to answer this important call to duty,” LaRose said. 

The state directives LaRose issued Wednesday include guidelines for ensuring safety for people who come to vote in person at the polls on Election Day or vote early at the elections boards. That includes plastic sheets to protect voters and election workers, as well as personal protective gear, hand sanitizer and other measures.

Kale-Pesta is currently in the process of pricing pens for Mahoning County voters to sign their signatures and keep afterward, in order to avoid multiple voters using the same pen.

Because the layout of the Trumbull County board of Elections doesn’t lend itself for social distancing for early voting, Penrose is scouting locations for a voting center offsite. 

“At our counter, people tend to be squeezed together and we can’t have that,” she said. 

Pictured: Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose answers a questions during a March 14 press conference. LaRose has said he would seek approval to pay postage for absentee ballot applications and returned ballots if he had more money. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.